The opening shot of this Iranian Kurdish-language film by acclaimed director Samira Makhmalbaf is a long shot that shows a group of men walking through a barren, mountainous region with blackboards strapped onto their backs. It’s an odd sight, and we follow two of them as the group splits and the men go in different ways. There is of course an implication that they are teachers, but they are never explicitly revealed as such, and despite the fact they carry and use their blackboards throughout the film they struggle to find an audience that they can teach.
Though little concrete information is given to the viewer – a decision quite common in Iranian cinema, which rejects widely-held western filmmaking conventions, specifically the need to dole out context and facts about characters, settings, periods, etc – it’s clear that the action takes place near the border with Iraq during wartime: we hear (but never see) soldiers firing and helicopters passing overhead. One of the men ends up travelling with a group of child smugglers/bandits who are uninterested in his knowledge. Another finds a group searching for their old town, which has been destroyed by fighting; within that party he marries the only woman. As the film progresses the blackboards are used more to protect the teachers and those with them from gunfire, or to hide, and rarely for their real purpose. The director has described the film – which did well at Cannes in 2000 – as a metaphor and a piece that exists in the space ‘between reality and fiction’. There is a strong sense of despair at the rejection of knowledge and learning, and as I’ve mostly been watching films by white westerners for quite a while, the change in voice and style was welcome, even though it took me a little while to get oriented. (***½)